Hearts racing for new service

Dr. Frank Halperin:

“It’s really the way things are supposed to be.”

Kelowna cardiologist Dr. Frank Halperin has had difficult conversations like this one with too many of his patients.

An elderly man with a heart condition appeared in his office five hours before Halperin spoke with The Okanagan Weekend about advancements in cardiac care in the Interior.

The doctor had to tell the man he needed vital treatment, but the service was only available in Vancouver or Victoria.

Instead of getting the care he needed, the man returned home to decide if he had the stamina and energy to make the journey.

“We look after patients with complicated cardiac electrical or rhythm problems all the time,” said Halperin, Chief of Cardiology at Kelowna General Hospital. “And it’s very frustrating and very difficult when you have people who find it difficult to travel down to Victoria or Vancouver to get things done.”

The doctor said exchanges like that don’t happen infrequently or intermittently.

“It’s an every-day occurrence of people having difficulty in terms of accessing the care that they need.”

Fortunately, those conversations could quickly become a thing of the past.

The KGH Foundation — the fundraising arm of health care in the Interior — announced recently it’s $1.4 million shy of completing the $7-million “Right Here at KGH” campaign.

The foundation is helping provide the startup costs for a state-of-the-art electrophysiology — or EP — lab for KGH, and hopes to having it up and running next spring or summer. It just needs the community to get behind that last push.

EP is the branch of cardiology that deals with the heart’s “electrical system.” KGH does well addressing “plumbing” problems such as blockages, but can’t help a patient with an irregular heart rhythm.

Providing these types of services, such as implanting a defibrillator, is the “missing link” to health care in the Interior, Halperin said.

And, seeing how quickly it could become a reality is tremendously exciting, Halperin said.

“In 15 years we’ve been able to go from, essentially, just figuring out what the problem is to now we actually can find the problem, treat the problem, and get people home faster to be with their families,” he said. “It’s awesome. It’s really the way things are supposed to be. Our whole group is very excited.”

It’s not terribly surprising we are almost there, he said.

When he joined KGH 15 years ago, he could sense Kelowna was more than just a quaint, small-town hospital.

There seemed to be an attitude that if we don’t have it, lets get it here. Now, Kelowna boasts advanced cancer care, a medical school, ever-expanding cardiac care at a growing research hospital that serves the entire Interior of B.C.

“We were able to do diagnostics and angiograms,” he said of his early days here. “We could assess what plumbing problems there were, but we couldn’t fix them. If it wasn’t something that we could just manage with medications; if they needed a balloon and stent; or, if they needed bypass surgery, we would have to transfer those patients down to Vancouver or Victoria to have that type of service provided.”

In 2009, KGH began offering angioplasty, and that itself improved survival rates for heart attacks greatly, he said.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time, but now we have those services here in Kelowna. Because of those services here, the mortality rate, the chance of dying from a heart attack, is being cut in half,” he said.

“That’s revolutionary in terms of our business,” Halperin added. “This is not a little incremental change. It was fantastic. We were no longer having to give the medications that dissolve clots, which cause bleeding and such.

“We were able to provide better care, faster. And people were having better outcomes.”

It hasn’t happened without co-operation on many levels, the doctor says. It takes administrators to establish targets, forward-thinking doctors, governments that listen, fundraisers to set goals and — most importantly — a community to support it.

The public’s response to supporting EP is what impresses Halperin most.

Just within the past few months, donors across the Interior Health region got behind JoeAnna’s House, which was itself is a roughly $7-million project.

“It really speaks to what an incredible town we live in,” he said. “We don’t have that many people who live here, yet these people are incredibly generous.”

To learn more about the EP lab and fundraising efforts, visit kghfoundation.com.